Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is what literature needs. Not a guilty pleasure like John Grisham or highbrow kid-lit like Harry Potter, nope, though Chabon taps into the same spot in our head that wants to read for the joy of it. Michael Chabon is that rare writer who invents entertainment that also happens to be literature. Or maybe his books are literature that happen to be entertaining. Who cares which?

Gentleman of the Road, Chabon’s latest, comes at us like a straight-up thriller, even carrying the subtitle “A Tale of Adventure”. On one level it is similar to a Lethal Weapon movie — a story of two mismatched guys with deadly skills but good intentions who are just trying to get through the day. But, because Chabon is one of our finest writers, this book — hewing to formula in certain ways — is never formulaic or merely fun. It has the resonance and depth of literature.

A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down? It’s more than that. Chabon’s career seems to be about telling us that terrific literature is the sugar itself. “Seriousness” in writing need not have a bitter taste. Not in the right hands.

In Chabon’s latest, meet the scrawny, ghost-like Zelikman and the hulking African Amram around the year 950 A.D. in the Khazar kingdom, engaged in swordplay over a hat that results in the larger man’s death. In fact, the two are partners, scamming their way through the mountains from town to town. They see money in becoming the escorts of a young prince, Filaq, who’s been thrown from power and is pursued by whole armies. Agreeing to become his bodyguards in his quest to raise an army and retrieve his kingdom, the partners are quickly engaged in every known form of derring-do, with generous helpings of action, psychological suspense, doublings-back, and shifting identities. To reveal too much of the plot would, of course, defeat the purpose of this review. Read the darn thing.

It is not too much to say that Chabon’s novelistic instincts are sufficiently honed that he gives the characters nuanced histories that make them three-dimensional even amidst the pulp storylines. Zelikman is a gaunt, black-clad physician who operates both medically and violently with a needle-like saber called Lancet and whose attachment to his stolen horse is near-romantic. He is haunted by the family and culture that he left behind, however — inconsolable at the core for reasons that Chabon is slow to reveal. The giant Amram is his opposite in many regards, preferring a Viking axe inscribed with the title “Defiler of Your Mother” and pining for the tenderness that was once a part of his life. What both share, aside from a taste for ingenious escapes and steely courage, is a heritage as Jews. In his afterword, Chabon writes that his original and preferred title for the book was Jews with Swords. And there is no doubt that Chabon is aware that the watchword for this short novel is incongruity — that these two mismatched characters should be blood brothers, that such swashbucklers should be Jewish, and that a literary prize-winner like himself should be writing this sort of pulp stuff in the first place.

Clearly, Chabon relishes his current position in American letters. Having established literary credibility with three astonishing modern novels (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), he has more recently spent his time exploring the pleasures and possibilities of writing in genres normally overlooked by Those Who Give Literary Prizes. Summerland was a generous and nuanced book about baseball and fantasy for older children, and The Final Solution: A Story of Detection was a skewed take on Sherlock Holmes — with neither book apparently striving to be taken fully seriously as “the latest Michael Chabon novel”. Earlier this year, however, Chabon published The Yiddish Policeman’s Union: A Novel — a book whose title even suggests that it is to be taken fully seriously.

Yiddish Policeman’s Union, however, was no less a genre exercise than its recent predecessors. Written in a hard-boiled, world-weary style that is cousin to Raymond Chandler, it harnessed all the pleasures of reading a page-turning crime novel while still exploring Chabon’s trademark obsessions with Jewish identity and history. Kavalier & Clay indulged an equally non-literary interest in comic books. Plainly, Chabon’s ambitions are currently driven by and inspired by a full range of “lower” forms of cultural expression.

Gentlemen is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, a writer of both science fiction/fantasy and more experimental work that dabbles in genre parody and formal play. Both Chabon and Moorcock, it seems, were inspired by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And Chabon’s determination to make this an adventure book extended to the manner in which this book was published: as a serial novel meted out one chapter at a time in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. Clearly this convention had an effect on the book itself, as each chapter is a small set piece that ends with a flurry. The action in Gentlemen is not skimpy, and it comes through enough plot twists and turns that the story is both thrilling and confusing. Mostly, the thrills outweigh the confusion, as Chabon takes his job as a serial novelist seriously — he catches you up on what you might have missed and keeps questions of style and character as important as plot.

As in all of Michael Chabon’s books, there are sentences you would give a limb to have written and that provide heaping pleasure in the reading. Here, those sentences narrate action and violence and take on a particularly cinematic tone: “In the course of the fighting, the lean Captain ran onto the sword point of the stocky one and added his own life to the day’s grim total and to the slick, rank slurry of blood and dust that filmed the square.” There is no absence of introspection here, but it is less the centerpiece of book. Still, there a sense that the action here is bound up with Chabon’s thematic concerns — his wandering Jewish warriors are inherently displaced and searching, and their taking up arms on behalf of a youth who is both hunted and predestined is not without resonance.

Fans of Chabon will want to know that questions of identity here are sexual as well as religious and that these matters are artfully twined into the action. As always, Chabon operates with greatest subtlety and deftness when looking at his characters’ deepest chords of feeling. In these spots, Zelickman, Amran, and the stripling Filaq seem as fully human as Artie Bechstein or Grady Tripp. There are places, perhaps, where Chabon’s depiction of tenth century dialogue and attitude seems close to anachronism. And there are times when this slim volume becomes tedious with names and geographies. But mostly, Chabon masters the balance of pulp and personality.

Looking ahead, it is fun to consider where this author may take us next. Unlike the best writers of his predecessor generation, Chabon has cleverly sidestepped the anticipation of what might be either a masterpiece or a disappointment. Reviews of novels by Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon are inevitably weighed down by the gargantuan heft of these writers’ prior achievements. Chabon’s writing is arguably as great, but its accomplishment has a gleeful, even prankster quality that suggests how literature might yet weather the storm of video games and iPods and Facebook that seems to make reading seem increasingly dull.

Chabon, not dull at all, offers profundity with swordfights. You should take him up on it.

RATING 8 / 10